George Washington Papers

Memorandum of an Interview with Lieutenant Colonel James Paterson, 20 July 1776

Memorandum of an Interview with Lieutenant Colonel James Paterson

[New York, 20 July 1776]

After usual Compliments in which as well as through the whole Conversation Col. P. addressed Gen. Washington by the Title of Excelly: Col: Patterson entered upon the Business by saying That Gen. Howe much regretted the Difficulties which had arisen respecting the Address of the Letters to Genl W.1—that it was deemed consistent with Propriety & founded upon Precedents of the like Nature by Embassadors & Plenipotentiaries where Disputes or Difficulties of Rank had arisen—That Gen. W. might recollect he had last Summer address’d a Letter to Gen. Howe to the Hon: William Howe Esqe2—That Ld Howe & General H. did not mean to derogate from the Respect or Rank of Genl W.—that they held his Person & Character in the highest Esteem—That the Direction with the Addition of &c. &c. &c.—implied every thing that ought to follow. He then produced a Letter which he did not directly offer to Gen. W. but observed that it was the same Letter which had been sent & laid it on the Table with a Superscription to Geo. Washington &c. &c. &c.—The General declined the Letter & said that a Letter directed to a person in a publick Character should have some Description or Indication of it otherwise it would appear a mere private Letter—That it was true the &c. &c. &c. implied every thing & they also implied any thing. That the Letter to Gen. Howe alluded to was an Answer to one received under a like Address from him—which the Officer on Duty having taken he did not think proper to return, but answered it in the same Mode of Address. That he should absolutely decline any Letter directed to him as a private Person when it related to his publick Station. Col. P. then said that Genl Howe would not urge his Delicacy farther & repeated his Assertions that no Failure of Respect was intended. He then said that he would endeavour as well as he could, to recollect Gen. Howes Sentiments on the Letter & Resolves of Congress sent him a few Days before respecting the Treatment of our Prisoners in Canada3—“That the Affairs of Canada were in another Department not subject to the Controul of Genl Howe—but that he & Ld Howe utterly disapproved of every Infringement of the Rights of Humanity.[“] Col. P. then took a Paper out of his Pocket & after looking it over said he had expressd nearly the words—Gen. W. then said that he had also forwarded a Copy of the Resolves to Gen. Burgoyne. To which Col. P. replied he did not doubt a proper Attention would be paid to them, & that he (Gen. W.) was sensible that Cruelty was not the Characteristick of the British Nation.

Col. P. then proceeded to say he had it in Charge to mention the Case of Genl Prescott who they were informd was treated with such Rigour that under his Age & Infirmities fatal Consequences might be apprehended.4 Gen. Washington replied that Genl Prescotts Treatment had not fallen under his Notice—That all Prisoners under his particular Direction he had treated with Kindness & made their Situation as easy & comfortable as possible. That he did not know where General Prescott was, but believed his Treatment very different from their Information. Gen. W. then mentioned the Case of Col. Allen & the Officers who had been confined in Boston Gaol—As to the first Col. P. answered that Gen. Howe had no Knowledge of it but by Information from Gen. Washington & that the Canada Department was not under his Direction or Controul.5 That as to the other Prisoners at Boston whenever the State of the Army at Boston admitted it they were treated with Humanity & even Indulgence—that he asserted this upon his Honour & should be happy in an Opp[ortunit]y to prove it.

Gen: W. then observed that the Conduct of several of the Officers would well have warranted a different Treatment from what they had received—some having refused to give any Parole, & others having broke it when given by escaping or endeavouring so to do. Col. P. answered that as to the first they misunderstood the Matter very much & seemed to have mistook the Line of Propriety exceedinly—and as to the latter Gen. Howe utterly disapproved & condemned their Conduct—that if a Remonstrance was made such Violations of good Faith would be severely punished—but that he hoped Gen. W. was too just to draw publick Inferences from the Misbehaviour of some private Individuals that bad Men were to be found in every class & Society—that such Behaviour was considered as a dishonour to the British Army.

Col. Patterson then proceeded to say that the Goodness and Benevolence of the King had induced him to appoint Ld Howe & Gen. H. his Commissioners to accomodate this unhappy Dispute—that they had great Powers & would derive the greatest Pleasure from effecting an Accomodation—& that he (Col. P.) wish’d to have this Visit considered as making the first Advances to this desirable Object. Gen. W. replied he was not vested with any Powers on this Subject by those from whom he derived his Authority & Power. But from what had appeared or transpired on this Head Ld Howe & Gen. Howe were only to grant Pardons—that those who had committed no Fault wanted no Pardon: that we were only defending what we deemed our indisputable Rights—Col. P. said that that would open a very wide Field for Argument. He then expressed his Apprehensions that an Adherence to Forms was likely to obstruct Business of the greatest Moment & Concern. He then observed that a Proposal had been formerly made of exchanging Govr Skene for Mr Lovel, that he now had Authority to accede to that Proposal. Gen. W. replied that the Proposition had been made by the Direction of Congress, and having been then rejected he could not now renew the Business or give any Answer till he had previously communicated it to them.6

Col: Patterson behaved with the greatest Politeness & Attention during the whole Business—express’d strong Acknowledgments that the usual Ceremony of blinding his Eyes had been dispensed with—At the breaking up of the Conference General Washington strongly invited him to partake of a small Collation provided for him—which he politely declined, alledging his late Breakfast—& an Impatience to return to Gen. Howe tho he had not executed his Commission so amply as he wish’d—Finding he did not propose staying he was introduced to the General Officers, after which he took his Leave & was safely conducted to his own Boat which waited for him about 4 Miles distant from the City.

D, in Joseph Reed’s writing, DLC:GW. GW enclosed a copy of this document, which has not been found, in his letter to Hancock of 22 July. Congress resolved on 26 July that this interview be published (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 5:612). It appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on 27 July and was subsequently reprinted in other newspapers.

In his journal entry for 19 July, Samuel Blachley Webb writes: “A flag appeared this morning, when Colo. [Joseph] Reed & myself went down. Aid de Camp to General Howe met us—and said, as there appeared an insurmountable obstacle between the two Generals, by way of Corresponding, General Howe desired his Adjutant General might be admitted to an Interview with his Excellency General Washington—On which Colo. Reed, in the name of General Washington, consented.” The next day “at 12 oClock,” Webb says, “we met the Flagg, took Lieutt. Col. [James] Paterson, of [the 63d] regiment into our Barge and escorted him safely to Town to Colo. Knox’s Quarters; where his Excellency General Washington attended with his Suit and Life Guards, Received and had an Interview of about an hour with him. We then escorted him back in safety to his own Barge—In going & comeing, we pass’d in front of the Grand Battery—but did not blind fold him:—Sociable and Chatty all the way” (Ford, Webb Correspondence and Journals description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb. 3 vols. New York, 1893–94. description ends , 1:156).

Paterson’s account of the interview, dated 20 July at Staten Island, is in the Carleton Papers at the Public Record Office. “On being presented to G.W.,” Paterson says, “I informed him, that I had the Honor to wait upon him from G[eneral] H[owe] to acknowledge the Receipt of his Letter, inclosing a narrative of Transactions in Canada, with resolves of the Congress in Consequence [see GW to Howe and Burgoyne, 15 July], that G.H. was surprized to find, that some Misapprehension in want of Form had been the cause of G.W.’s not receiving his Letter upon this Subject of the 11[16]th Inst: and that I had that Letter to present to him.

“G.W. with many Expressions of great Politeness and Respect to G.H. said he cou’d not possibly or consistently with his former Declarations, receive in the Situation he held any letter addressed to him in a private Character, this brought on a Conversation too trifling to repeat as it turned merely upon Opinion with regard to form, at the close of it I expressed my Apprehensions that all Intercourse must consequently be cutt off between us, but that my first & principal duty was, to communicate to him the Contents of that Letter which I immediately did, he was desirous to have it in writing, but that I begged leave to decline, as he had thought proper to refuse the original, that G.W. expressed some Concern at the Idea of all Communication being at an End, as he was fully convinced how much we had already suffered for want of that free Intercourse subsisting among all civilized Nations, tho’ at War, and took this Opportunity of complaining of our Treatment of their Prisoners when at Charles Town heights [Bunker’s and Breed’s hills], this Charge as it was totally unexpected, so it was easy to confute, as I cou’d boldly affirm from my own Knowledge upon the Spot, that every degree of Humanity and Tenderness was exerted upon that occasion to the unfortunate People who fell into our Hands, as I was about to take my Leave, I told the General I could not resist the Temptation before me of exceeding the Limits of my Commission by taking the Liberty of pointing out, the King’s most gracious disposition towards the Americans so strongly manifested in the Powers he had granted and the Choice he had made of Persons unconnected with Ministerial Arrangements, to whom His Majesty had thought proper to delegate the full & free Execution of those great Powers, after some Pause G. W. answered this by expressing with the greatest Politeness his Sentiments of the high Characters employed upon this very important occasion, said something of the cause depending being a matter of right, to which when I replied that taking up the Subject upon that Ground was much too wide a Field for the present Occasion, the General heartily concurred with me, and with a great deal of marked Attention and Civility permitted me to take my Leave.”

“This interview,” Howe wrote to Lord George Germain on 6 Aug., “was more polite than interesting; however it induced me to change my superscription for the attainment of an end so desirable” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:177–79).

James Paterson was adjutant general of Howe’s army from 18 April 1776 to July 1777 when he carried dispatches to England. While in England, Paterson obtained promotion to colonel, and after his return to America in July 1779, Sir Henry Clinton gave him local rank as brigadier general. Paterson served in Clinton’s Charleston expedition in 1780 and commanded British troops on Staten Island in 1781 and Long Island in 1782.

4Brig. Gen. Richard Prescott, who had been captured by the Americans at Lavaltrie, Canada, in November 1775, was being held at Philadelphia (see Schuyler to GW, 28 Nov. 1775, and Hancock to GW, 6–21, 29 Jan. 1776). The Americans accused Prescott of mistreating Col. Ethan Allen after Allen was captured by the British at Montreal in September 1775, and in his letter to Howe of 18 Dec. 1775, GW threatened to retaliate against Prescott if Allen suffered further mistreatment. Prescott was exchanged for Sullivan in September 1776.

6See GW to Howe, 30 Jan., and Howe to GW, 2 Feb. 1776. James Lovell was exchanged for Philip Skene in November 1776.

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